Thursday, February 2, 2023

Tiers Of Play

Man, it's been a rough week or two. Or four. January...rough this year. Been pretty stressed; if I made a salty response or comment (here or on your blog) in the last few apologies.

Okay. On with the show!

[oh, wait...yeah, I changed Ye Old Blog's layout a bit. Blogger is "easy" to use, but it's a bitch to adjust when you can't access the code and the options for manipulation are limited. Hopefully, people aren't having a hard time with the new look...more apologies for any inconvenience]

Over at Prince's, there was an announcement that the "goal" for this year's NAP III contest would be to explore the concept of play/adventures for high level characters, a woefully underdeveloped area of D&D gaming. This prompted much discussion amongst the commenters...both excitement and not-a-little trepidation.

There is...and has been for a long time...a dearth of D&D game play in the upper echelons of level range, at least amongst MANY of the folks 'round this neck of the woods (old edition D&D players). Which is a tad silly, considering how many YEARS this OSR ball has been a-rolling. Why silly? Because, with regular, committed game play, getting to a "high" level in D&D doesn't take that long...assuming, of course:

A) players are getting better at playing, and
B) DMs are providing adequate, regular opportunities for x.p. (i.e. treasure)

There are two AD&D campaigns currently going on in my household: one run by me, one run by my son. For a variety of reasons (mainly sheer busy-ness) we don't get as much time to play as anyone would like...maybe a couple/three times pre month?...the boy hasn't even run us since, I think, December or November.  Today, he'll be our DM.

[ah, jeez. Just found out Diego is sick with something...has a fever. Well, that throws a monkey-wrench in everything. Add more stress to the pile!]

Hmm. Well, today he was supposed to be our DM. *sigh*  

Anyway, despite that game playing infrequently, I've still managed to get my "main" PC to 5th level and a secondary PC to 4th. In MY campaign, the players started new 1st level characters, and the party ranger (a notoriously difficult class to level up) just hit 2nd level after three-ish sessions? That's withOUT an earned x.p. bonus (his ability scores don't meet the threshold for the +10%).

If we were to play regularly (which I'd consider four to six hours per week), I'd expect all players to be hitting mid-level in two to three months. By the end of the year (always assuming decent play and participation) I'd expect most...if not all!...of the players' main PCs to be starting to see the lofty heights of "high-level."

But what does that mean, exactly: High level? Mid level? There seems to be some confusion/consternation floating around in Ye Old Inter-Webs. Some folks consider anything above 7th level to be "high level;" I saw one commenter who considered 5th level to be "high." 5th? Not much room for a mid-tier there!

I think, perhaps, some definitions could help.

AD&D is the most robust of the old school systems, and (of the older editions) is best able to accommodate ALL scales of D&D play. In fact, I would argue it is DESIGNED to do so (compared to the Basic sets which were written to introduce new players to the game, or the OD&D rules which were a "first pass" at the creation of this new hobby). Plenty of monster, magic items, powerful spells and hostile environments (planar travel, anyone?) to challenge the highest tiers of character power.  However, there are (for me) clear delineations, or TIERS, of play.

Low-level play: 1st through 5th
Mid-level play: 6th through 11th
High-level player: 12th+

These are approximations. To measure in experience points, I'd tag a good breakpoint for "mid-level" at 50,000 x.p. and "high-level" at either 500,000 or 1,000,000 x.p. (depending on the individual campaign).

My measure for this is in terms of PC power/effectiveness which (in AD&D) can generally be equated to which magical spells are readily and easily accessed by an adventuring party with a good variety of character types. 

The mark of mid-level play is the ability to access 3rd level spells...easily and readily. 3rd level spells is the category when the troubles of low-level (beginning) adventurers start to lose their sting. In the cleric section we see spells like continual light (who needs torches?), create food & water (ditto rations!), cure disease (removing rot grub, green slime, giant rats), dispel magic (handy), glyph of warding (protect your safe room in the dungeon!), locate object (where was that stairway up?), and remove curse (obviously good). For the necromantically inclined, animate dead can turn those dead orcs into meat shields and/or treasure porters, and speak with dead gives PCs good intel on the dungeon.  Dungeon crawling, the meat and drink of low-level adventurers becomes far easier with a handful of these babies every day.

For the magic-user, the spell book really begins to open up with 3rd level spells. Certainly fireball and lightning bolt become wonderful crowd clearers and monster killers, but utility spells like fly, invisibility 10' radius, Leomund's tiny hut, tongues, and water breathing allow exploration possibilities that weren't previously available. Scouting becomes easier with spells like clairvoyance and clairaudience, and protection from normal missiles makes the party's wizard much more durable. Of course, spells like haste, slow, and hold person can provide huge advantages in fights...especially against numerous lesser opponents. 

However, it's not enough that the party cleric or wizard has only ONE of these spells. To be a true mid-level party, you need ready access...enough to sustain a significant delve or session. Four to six applications of 3rd level power is what you're looking for, with six to eight being even better. Once your players have access to that level of magical resource (and are smart enough to not simply stock "fireball x3") then you can look at the group as "mid-level."

In similar vein, I peg "high level" player to approximately 12th level. In truth, with decent players (and excellent magical equipment) 10th or 11th would be a fine breakpoint, as it is the ready access to 5th level spells that denotes high level play. 

But at 12th level, the kid gloves can finally come off.

5th level magic is the kind of stuff that breaks a lot of DMs poor little noggins. For clerics, we get spells like commune, dispel evil, plane shift, raise dead, and true seeing...spells that allow intel/recon without fear, spells that remove the sting of death, and spells that can banish even pit fiends back to their own planes (woe betide the player who feels cure critical wounds and flamestrike are the cleric's best spells of this magnitude). For magic-users, we gain access to cloudkill, conjure elemental. contact other plane, hold monster, magic jar, passwall, and teleport...some of the most powerful spells in the entirety of the game. Whole dungeons levels can be cleared by means of these spells...dungeon levels readily mapped with the use of the 4th level wizard eye spell. 

But 6th level magic (obtained at 11th level by clerics, and 12th level by magic-users) puts even these to shame. Clerics gain the ability to cast heal, which not only enable the curing of insanity and the instant recovery of hit points, but can also bring a raised character back to full adventuring strength (no waiting a week for recovery!). Find the path makes the objective of any dungeon quest far more easily accessible, and word of recall gives the character an instant "get out of jail free" card to return to his/her fortress (and EVERY cleric, by 11th level should have a stronghold staffed by loyal followers).  For magic-users, stone to flesh enables a party to recover from petrifaction, while reincarnate allows the wizard to act as an "emergency cleric" if the group's patriarch has been killed. Anti-magic shell, legend lore, death and disintegrate are all incredibly useful, and no wizard should be caught at sea without control weather in the repertoire.  Just having access to two or three of these 6th level spells can greatly extend the operational range of a high level party. 

Of course, any party that has a 12th level magic-user should (assuming equitable distribution of x.p.) include a 13th level thief (or 11th level in the case of a multi-classed demihuman).  13th level sees thieves with a 99% of moving silently, and 85%-99% chance of hiding in shadows (depending on race), and quintuple damage from a successful backstab. For a thief with a +3 short sword and an (off-hand) +2 dagger...not an unheard of combo...that's an average of 55 damage, enough to bring down a 12 HD monster (say, a fire giant) in a single go.

Fighter types of 10th and 11th level will generally have AC well below zero and hit points in the 60+ range (70+ for rangers) in addition to multiple attacks, and bonus spells (paladins and rangers). An 11th level paladin turns undead on the same column as a 13th level cleric, auto-turning wights, wraiths, ghouls, and ghasts and having a decent (better than 50%) chance against anything up through vampires. And rangers at high level gain IMMENSE damage bonuses versus evil humanoids, like giants. 

All of which is Good & Necessary. As I said, DMs need pull no punches when it comes to high level adventuring parties: greater demons and devils, giants, gorgons, mind flayers, purple worms and (duh) dragons all should be available as challenges for high level parties. Monsters that would result in TPKs if placed in adventures can finally hit the table without resentment; fiendish traps and magical curses can abound. Deep forays into the bowels of the earth...or the unknown of extra-planar realms...can occur. And the DM need not fear reprisal and hostility from the players. After all, this is what they've been working towards, over dozens of play sessions. It is the very reason to play the extended Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Okay...that's enough to chew on for now. I hope to have a follow-up post that provides some helpful hints on transitioning players from one tier to the next. I feel like THAT is (yet another) subject solely lacking intelligent discourse and explanation.
; )

A typical LOW-level party.


  1. I think you've outlined unintentionally a problem with the high-level player elements you've described.

    Apart from the fact that you have more powerful spells to fight more powerful monsters, what, precisely, is more SUBSTANTIAL about the high-level game? As you describe it, it seems precisely what the low-level game offers ... except that as a player I don't have to fight and strive and survive a bunch of months in order to play THE SAME GAME.

    As a DM, given the tack you've taken here, I work far less hard throwing low level monsters at a low level party, yet they seem to enjoy it. Why should I, as DM, work that much harder to handle far more complex situations with higher monsters and greater spells if the material quality of the game isn't improved?

    1. You bring up a good point, Alexis. But I wasn't just talking about crafting high level "dungeons."

      Fact is, most of these high level spells (once players have ready access to them) render the traditional dungeon delving fairly superfluous. When I can scout the whole thing with a wizard eye, drop cloudkills into every nook and cranny, use truesight to discover all its secrets (only after conjuring 16 HD elementals to beat up any "big bads")...well, that renders typical adventures pretty routine cakewalks. Something more is needed: a broader perspective of what "adventure" is and a deeper world to explore.

      From where I sit, a larger world needs challenges large AND small, simple AND complex. Yes, you can use complex situations/scenarios in place of complex monsters (the deeper game). You can also use complex monsters in simple scenarios (the dragon in the cave at the top of "Dragon Mountain" or whatever). For the truly elite players, we might want both complex scenarios AND complex adversaries. The GAMUT should be available...and yet many folks want only to explore a small selection of what is available.

      And, in my estimation, that resistance is caused by two things: fear (or nervousness) of doing the work needed to challenge PCs at a level of experience in the upper echelons (given the power range of such characters), AND/OR ignorance of how one could even run such a campaign.

      Personally, I don't recall ever having difficulty running high level games (did it in my youth, and didn't need to resort to "nerfing" players). But it's a different style and way of playing...and perhaps a bit of a "lost art." I am confident I could do it again...and one of my objectives IS to get my players to those lofty ranks...and I believe I could (today) run such a campaign in a far more sophisticated fashion. And I relish the prospect.

      But, you know, that's just me. I'm weird.
      ; )

    2. I simply don't find that answer satisfying. Given the history of my stance on D&D, it should be clear that I'm arguing there should be MORE to the game at any level, and particularly at high level, than how much power the characters have or how complex the scenario is. What sort of scenarios are we speaking of here? Because I cannot read your mind.

    3. Got it. But my formulated response will (I hope) be the subject of the next post.

      Er...maybe. I might throw in a cheap one about demihuman level limits before that. But after that...really.

      [*sigh* I can already see I'm setting expectations too high]

    4. Can't bow out now. Unless you want me to write it.

    5. Good grief, if there was “more to the game” then you would think that the authors would have written it into the rule system, the adventures they published, or the fiction they wrote. But they didn’t. While they did, to some degree, continue to evolve the dungeon crawl (only very slightly), for the most part, what you see is what you get.

      Gygax had the opportunity to clarify his vision for both D&D-style fantasy and the game system that mirrored it when he wrote the Gord series. If you recall the plot, Gord’s adventures were nothing more than an escalation of threats and challenges, from the mundane at the onset to downright planar by the end. But was their any more nuance? Any more complexity? Nope, just more cosmic significance.

      Now, while that was just fiction — and not meant to be a treatise on how the various tiers of D&D should play out — the fact is that the *type* of plot is a reflection of his perspective on higher levels of play. It’s standard sword and sorcery stuff. We see it time and again in Conan the Barbarian, Elric of MelnibonĂ©, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and in Ged of Earthsea. Same thing from beginning to end, just more of the world hanging in the balance.

      Maybe there doesn’t have to be more to the game than that. Maybe defeating Lolth herself and her minions in an Abyssal pocket dimension is good enough. Either way, the way the AD&D rules are written point to more of the same, whether you’re at level 1 or level 20, just with greater stakes and consequences. I think it’s pretty astute to use the spell tables as a roadmap to how (and where) the higher level adventures are supposed to be played out.

      It sounds like there’s a desire for D&D adventures to have more “meaning.” I’m not sure who needs to benefit. The DM? The players? I think the inherent open-endedness of D&D, or RPGs in general, is what makes it so special. If a DM wants to add more meaning to the game, then by all means. If contemporary, 5th Edition players want to solve their existential crisis by making the DM resolve their character’s origin story as written in their self-assigned Background, then that’s fine too (although you can count me out).

      Maybe the entire game is just one, big, fat dungeon romp. What’s wrong with that?

    6. I'm a bit confused by this discussion, as the post frequently brings up the fact that the tiers are separated by availability of non-combat spells. There's also a brief mention of "EVERY cleric, by 11th level should have a stronghold staffed by loyal followers". So clearly not a case of dungeon delving but with 12HD orcs.

    7. @ Coffee:

      I've only read the first two Gord books, but I don't remember there being a heck of a lot of dungeons in them...other than the literal one where Gord spent some time imprisoned.

      But literal adventure sites? "Dungeon crawls?" Like the kind one finds on DriveThruRPG or the types that were published by TSR back in the day? No, not really. Which is (kind of) the point.

      The problem that Alexis brings up is NOT one of assigning "meaning" to anything in the game. Rather, it's one of creating a deeper experience of game play, by having a richer, more substantive world. It's got nothing to do with telling has to do with not limiting oneself to the cobbled 12 room map on graph paper with 4 monsters, 3 traps, and a chest of treasure.

      Alexis is asking: who cares if PCs are "high level" or not, if all you're doing is the same tired shtick? If the DM is cobbling an ancient temple filled with demons instead of bugbears?

      This is a longstanding discussion. I would guess Mr. Smolensk believes I'm sidestepping the more important topic (developing one's D&D game) by focusing on lesser fare (distinguishing tiers of play)...or worse, that by procrastinating on the former I am putting forward a false narrative of just pushing for high level play (or the work that goes into creating high level play) as the objective that people should be seeking after.

      I'm not, by the way. I just happen to like high level play and I want to discuss it because there's just a bunch of ignorance out there.

      Anyhoo. Alexis can correct me if I'm wrong with my presumptions about his state of mind. I've got to cook some breakfast.

    8. Hmn.

      Well, one thing is clear. I read his response — and maybe part of your initial post — all wrong. Serves me right for trying to follow a thread at 2:00 AM. Not a good practice at my age. My bad.

    9. I'll admit, Coffeemate, I worded the original response with the intention of being provocative. JB and I have been sparring some 8 years now, and we see through each other's rhetoric very clearly. Let me state, fairly, that I agree with everything JB's written in the post. JB knows I agree with it, because he's seen me make the exact same argument on my own blog, Tao of D&D.

      This means that between us, I'm free to jump three paces ahead of the pretext of the post. Yes, plainly, AD&D was designed for players to go up many levels, and not just to 7th. Yes, plainly, the monsters and the other features are right there in the books that encourage players to do so, and DMs to run increasingly complex campaigns based on what demons, titans, lichs and remorhaz can do--and their immense powers for causing massive damage and instant kills.

      My perspective is, however, that there's also much detail regarding castle-building, acquiring titles, collecting rents and taxes, having retainers, establishing oneself as nobility, court intrigue and many other elements that are NOT based on bigger monsters and better spells. This is JB's perspective also, without question. I know this. He knows this. But poking him, getting a response, building our repartee, this is what he and I do. So I selfishly jumped forward and provoked him to direct comments towards this other element of high-level gaming, not mentioned in the post.

    10. Indeed.

      And, also (as Alexis brought up in his initial comment), one need not wait till players have reached high levels to explore all the possibilities of castle building, title acquisition, rent collection, court intrigue, etc. etc. Twice now (in my own campaign), I've seen low-level characters acquire Inn establishments that they could run as businesses...if such was there pleasure (it wasn't). Twice I've had PCs under 6th level (which I would consider the start of "mid" level) acquire ships and cargo, operating as a shipping venture while still searching for grander treasures.

      Currently, the players I'm running have VERY low-level characters (1st and 2nd) who are on the verge of involvement in some courtly intrigue. It is the court of a VERY minor noble (a borderland baroness...little more than a warlord) but, still, not your typical "dungeon fare" as far as adventures are usually seen.

      And they might avoid it altogether...I do not run a railroad campaign (the party's real aim at the moment is running down a guy who stole their donkeys). I only point out that it is a POSSIBILITY that exists based on the region they're in and the various circumstances in place. We'll see what occurs.
      ; )

  2. I would go

    1st to 4th low
    5th to 8th mid
    9th to 12th high
    13+ advanced (a confusing title I know)

    But I get why you went with Ready Access to 3rd level spells versus just access.

    But I give a lot less treasure and not every session moves xp forward. I guess. My normal rate of advancement in 1e is probably one level every 4 sessions so a level every month.

    1. @ 7B:

      I'm not going to tell anyone that their rate of x.p. is too slow or too fast. DMs (assuming they're attentive) will know if their players are satisfied or not at the rate of progress. You definitely don't want players to advance so fast that their powers outstrip their ability to use those powers (like the wizard who only stocks his/her memory with the most damaging offensive spells at their disposal).

      [you'll know if that happens because the party will blunder unprepared into the den of some "level appropriate" opponent and get demolished]

      Even running a "basic" game (Holmes, B/X, BECMI, or the various clones), I'd be hesitant to call 5th level "mid." An owlbear has the potential to drop a B/X fighter in a single round...mid-level characters able (on average) to survive ONE round, even when retreating or surprised! And an owlbear, God love 'em, isn't even close to being a "high level" monster. There's one in B2 for goodness sakes!

      Your tiers are a little low, in my opinion. But keep them if you like...please don't think I'm calling you out as having a "weenie" game or something. I'm not! The definitions I'm writing in this post are a table setting for a future post, and I just want my readers to understand the perspective I'm starting from.

    2. No offense taken. My games have never been called "weenie" to much danger and death. Yes that means lots of Owlbears.

      On advancement speed I feel this ties to your earlier post on world building. When my game hits its stride, xp advancement often takes a back seat to other game world issues.

      For example a whole session might be played where the party is trying to forge a document to gain entry into guild library or digging up dirt on a local merchant to get him to sell some land cheap to a friendly NPC. The players are having fun, but actual gold gained takes a back seat to personal goals.